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George Will’s Column About the Supreme Court’s Decision on Union Fees Misleads Readers

George Will (Photo: Scott Ableman / CC)

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George Will’s widely published early July column about the Supreme Court’s decision allowing home care providers to avoid paying fees to the union chosen by a majority of their fellow workers is misleading at best. The column omits important facts and uses language that confuses the reader regarding others.

Contrary to Will’s declaration that the workers were “herded into unions” by government “fiat,” the Illinois law, initiated by gubernatorial executive order but subsequently enacted by the state legislature, merely allowed home care workers to unionize. A majority of the workers then voted to be represented by the Service Employees International Union. Like political voters who are represented by the winning candidate regardless of their personal vote, the plaintiff in the case, Harris, was bound by her fellow workers’ majority vote for union representation. Under Illinois law, she was required to pay the cost of representation (though not required to join the union), just as those who vote against a winning political candidate must still pay taxes.

Will’s column omitted the fact that the law requires the union to represent Harris even though she chooses not to join the union. The Supreme Court’s decision identified improved conditions for the home care workers that include a substantial wage increase, a state funded health insurance plan, a training program, workplace safety measures, and a grievance procedure for employees. Harris, by law, benefited from each of these improvements negotiated by the union. The union could not legally negotiate improvements only for its members. Thus, the law required Harris to pay the union part of the cost of obtaining these benefits and administering the contract that contained them. Further, if Harris files a grievance under the contract, the union must provide her the same representation it offers union members. The Supreme Court’s decision now allows Harris to take advantage of these benefits paid for by her fellow workers without contributing to them herself.

In praising the decision, Will referred to it as “campaign finance reform,” suggesting that the union used Harris’ fee payments for political purposes. That is quite clearly not the case. Harris’ complaint challenged only the collection of fees for representation. The law already prohibited the union from using her fee payments for anything other than representation. Thus the case had absolutely nothing to do with campaign funds.

Will made some of these same errors in a column about the case written prior to the Supreme Court’s decision. They were debunked at that time by Charlotte Garden, writing in The Huffington Post. Why persist with the same distorted arguments? Many readers have limited experience with unions. Thus, they may not be aware of the actual facts, or the nuances of the law and the decision. As a result, they may be persuaded by Will’s arguments regardless of the inaccuracies.

There is a campaign by conservative groups to discredit and defund unions, which support, at least some of the time, progressive political candidates as well as the interests of workers, consumers and others with less power in our political system. By portraying Harris as a woman caring for a disabled son being taken advantage of by a big union, Will’s column supports this campaign. In reality, Harris and other workers received significant benefits as a result of unionization. While we can certainly sympathize with her difficult circumstances, her desire to avoid paying for the representation that gained her these benefits is not deserving of sympathy.

Harris is free to try to persuade her fellow workers to remove the union representative. The union can be voted out in the same way it was voted in by the workers. Harris is also free to communicate her personal views to the state that pays her wages, even if those views differ from those of the union. What she should not be permitted to do is to take the benefits of unionization without paying the cost. And that is what the Supreme Court’s decision allows.

Requiring unions to represent all the workers while receiving payment only from some of them reduces unions’ ability to engage in effective representation and limits their power. Further, it becomes more difficult to convince even committed workers to pay the union when others get the benefits for free. While the legal challenge to union fees is framed as a constitutional objection, it is hard to conclude that the ultimate goal is anything other than weakening unions.